With one hand, Stine Jensen holds open the door of the Amsterdam apartment where she lives, while holding a take-away cup of Persian tea in the other. She is wearing a bright yellow blazer and matching high heels that she purchased for the Wie is de Mol? finale. She is clutching the additional teabags the shop gave her. In her bright apartment, she switches on an electric kettle and puts a thermos flask with a teabag on the table. Then she takes a seat.
The philosopher writes columns, philosophical books geared to the public at large and children’s books. Three days a week she works for a broadcasting company called Human, for whom she creates podcasts and TV shows. The broadcasting company seconds her to Erasmus University on one of these three days. She plans to go to Rotterdam once every two weeks, although she might come in more frequently if she were lecturing.
You’re a philosopher, columnist, author, children’s author and documentary maker. We’ve seen you on TV shows such as Dus ik ben (‘Therefore I am’), and in 2018, you were a candidate on Wie is de Mol?. It sounds like an enervating existence. The university must be a tad boring to you after all that.
“No, I don’t think it’s boring at all. Moreover, I will continue writing children’s books and columns for NRC, and I will continue to present lectures. I also worked at VU University for a long time, until 2014. I can imagine teaching lectures being boring if your students are only attending because they have to. But to be honest, I’ve never met a philosophy student who wasn’t intrinsically motivated. Students make things fun. And I’m sure they’ll teach me a thing or two, as well.”
What kind of lectures do you hope to give?
“I like teaching seminars in which students actively take part. When I worked at VU University, I taught a course called ‘Art and Society’, where we used philosophical theories to analyse books or films that had proven controversial, such as the humongous scandal that erupted when Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was published. We would use philosophical theories to discuss what was causing the controversy and would often identify the same patterns. For instance, the students would often feel that such controversies were caused by the exclusion of, or insults to, one particular group or nation, or that it had something to do with strict public morality laws.”
What kind of subject would you like to research at EUR?
“I would like to explore the tension between the special and the universal. A little while ago I received an invitation to an annual dinner for academics and representatives of society and the business community. If you wanted to eat fish or meat with your dinner, you had to tick a box. In other words, the default option was vegetarian food. I’m a vegetarian myself, but I found it quite striking that guests were practically asked to justify their choice if they wanted to eat any meat. So the norm had suddenly changed. I’d like to write about this dynamic, also to see how it manifests between groups of people. Whether a majority does or does not take into account a minority’s wishes.”
A bookcase full of books, covering an entire wall in her study, boasts a red-and-orange copy of Adagia (‘Adages’), a collection by the classical philosopher and humanist Erasmus. Books can be found in other rooms, as well. A beaming Jensen leaves through Adagia. “The most beautiful flowers grow at the edge of the ravine. Just imagine coming up with a line like that! It makes your brain crackle. I’d like to see more of Erasmus’s vitality today.”
The living room holds a small bench seat under which several random hardcover books can be found. Sandra Langereis’s biography of Erasmus, called Erasmus: Dwarsdenker, is at the top of the pile. Humanist values such as freedom of religion, searching diversity and personal growth are as important to Jensen as they are to Erasmus.
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In an interview with the Human broadcasting company, you said that you would like to organise a symposium about humanist values. What kind of symposium would that be?
“I’m a huge fan of Erasmus, and particularly of his adages or sayings. I haven’t done too much thinking about such a symposium, but I think it would be very interesting to organise a symposium on humanism and how it’s still part of our lives today – say, in association with Ronald van Raak, Professor of Erasmian Values.”
What is it a public philosopher actually does?
“We ask questions about things that are considered a given and will say counterintuitive things at times. For instance, if everyone tells us we shouldn’t have that many stimuli in our lives, a public philosopher may explain why stimuli can actually be quite good for us.”
If you were to depict public philosophy like a landscape, what would it look like? And how has it changed over the years?
“Basically, philosophy has permeated into all aspects of life, except politics – I’ve never heard Mark Rutte quote Spinoza. Two movements can be discerned in that landscape: philosophy as medicine and philosophy as a method that can be used to reflect on crises. For the former, see self-help guides, retreats and yoga, and also Eastern philosophy. The second movement is more about the way in which the traditions of philosophical thought are expressed in the public debate. For instance, this would include popular books in which philosophy is applied to things such as asking questions – for instance, Socrates op sneakers. But it may also take the form of columns or children’s books, which are forms I often use myself.”
How has the philosophy studied in academia helped make philosophy more popular?
“The University of Groningen, which I attended, used to be a bit of a traditional academic bulwark which, before the 1990s, was best known for its focus on the philosophy of science and logic. When the new field of science research became more popular, research grew a lot more hands-on, and interdisciplinary research was accepted because more and more common ground was being identified between the various disciplines. That was the first time philosophy was offered as a secondary degree programme, as with the ‘double degree’ now offered in Rotterdam. I found that turn of events incredibly inspiring, and later on, it prompted me to get a PhD in Maastricht for research focusing on a highly interdisciplinary subject. My dissertation focused on the relationships between humans and animals in literature and science. That academic revolution also caused philosophy to become more interesting to more people.”
Your predecessor, public philosopher Marli Huijer, often clearly made her feelings known – for instance, in the debate on the preservability of life that became prominent during the coronavirus pandemic. How do you feel about that?
“I found it very inspiring that, when that discussion was being had, she argued that life is finite and that we shouldn’t seek to put off death forever. I appreciate the fact that she held a position that wasn’t in line with her own position. In that debate, she was on young people’s side. That’s brave.”
You yourself occasionally appear to be a bit of a contrarian, as well. A little while ago you wrote a column in NRC in which you criticised leftist activists for their position on burkas. Did you receive any angry reactions to that column?
“Yes, quite a lot of them. But that’s not exactly a new thing. I’ve been saying the same thing about this subject for ten years now. This country is one of very few countries in the world where you’re allowed to be an atheist and where this has been accepted for quite a while now. So it is remarkable that a progressive and leftist party such as BIJ1, which claims to fight for the freedom of women, should enter into an alliance with very conservative and religious clubs, and keep defending burkas. I think that is a strange alliance.”
Do you think that your columns about such matters may polarise the public debate?
“Columns are a polarising genre par excellence. Sometimes it’s vital that you stand firm in your support of your values. Sometimes people will reduce thinkers to a single point of view. When we do that, we are not searching nuance, but rather defending an ideology. As a philosopher, I try to the best of my ability not to act on my initial impulse, and I try to think beyond my initial judgement. If you read widely and a lot, you must sometimes be bold enough to change your opinions. As a matter of fact, that’s a very healthy thing to do.”
“But obviously, polarisation is a problem at present. It’s something that needs to be discussed. In an episode of my TV show Dus ik volg [‘Therefore I follow’], the thinkers I interviewed presented several solutions. For instance, the philosopher Babah Tarawally says that you may wish to consider asking others more often why they feel hurt, and political philosopher Kenan Malik says that it would be good to have a conversation on identity not in a way that posits it as a given, but rather to focus on values in the conversation.”
Jensen lives with her daughter, who attends primary school. Children’s drawings adorn the walls, and there is a football on the floor. “Sometimes we are just like children, except our toys are larger,” she says, quoting Erasmus. In addition to many works of popular science, the author has also written children’s books, such as Filotective, which introduces young readers to famous philosophers and their ideas. She has also spent a lot of time reflecting on child nurturing. She wrote two books about it, in association with her colleague Frank Meester. In Hoe voed ik mijn ouders op? (‘How to raise your parents’), young readers are told how to raise their parents, while De Opvoeders (‘The Educators’) explains to parents how to raise their children.
What is so interesting about children’s philosophy to you?
“I think that philosophy can be very meaningful, particularly to the target group of children aged 8 to 12. They tend to be very open-minded and curious. For instance, in my book Filotective, I explain the history of philosophy by presenting small quizzes and juicy gossip about philosophers. Children have a laugh about that, and the quizzes really get them going. I love their playful way of thinking.”
I’d imagine that raising children might involve certain philosophical considerations. How do you feel about that?
“It definitely does. For instance, imagine you’re a parent who’s wondering how to deal with a child who is constantly on a smartphone. How are you expected to respond as a parent? Do you take the phone away from the child or do you make an effort to listen to why the child is using the phone? There’s something to be said for either option. Listening is an important value, just like being strict. We then looked at what philosophers have said about both values. If you then make a decision, you can at least substantiate it and understand where the hesitation lies. This also touches on the core of what I think is important about philosophy, because it helps you arrive at a particular consideration that works or actually causes you to rethink something. That’s why thinking deep thoughts generally makes me happy.”